LIFE CAN OFTEN IMITATE THE THEMES OF OUR ART
Welcome to my first Blog about my new novel series ‘Diamonds in the Sky’. I am hoping to do one of these every few months or so, perhaps even every month, but let’s not pin it down to that just yet and see how we go. If you’re reading this then thank you and welcome to my new blog and website. I realise that your time is precious to you and I thank you in advance for taking some of your day to read my blog, it is an honour for me to have you take an interest in my work.
Writing a novel is something I have been harping on about doing, well, since my school days to be honest. When another project I was worked on encountered one delay after another I finally decided to do it and have been typing frantically on and off since the summer of 2016. I have set myself an epic task, a series no less of at least six book and once it gets going I hope to release them at the rate of at least one a year. Please do spread the word – If you’ve read the first three chapters and are one of my early readers then thank you for taking the time to do so and do please keep talking to people about it and spreading the word.
Themes - So I thought an interesting place to start would be with themes found within novels and how important it is for the writer to know or establish what these are going to be beforehand. Some writers may well argue you don't need a theme, though to be honest I have yet to see one actually saying that anywhere. I personally think they're vital and my whole reason for writing this book series was to tackle a number of social themes that I felt I really wanted to address.
I am writing this in the wake of one of the worst tragedies to befall London in recent years. In fact it’s been a pretty bad time for London recently. We had a spate of terrorist attacks early on in 2017 and were still emotionally recovering from the most recent attack on London Bridge and Borough Market when the fire broke out in one of the 1970’s dilapidated tower blocks in West London. Grenfell Tower was one of the worst of its kind and went on to claim the lives of at least 80 of its residents. What has this got to do with my novel series? Well quite a bit actually - One of the inspirations for writing ‘Diamonds in the Sky’ was my own dismay at the housing market prices in London. Most new refurbished properties are purchased by wealthy Landlords, often from overseas, which are then then rented out to London's Middle Classes who can afford them while the poor have to be content from the scraps that remain. Normally terribly renovated box flats in crumbling structures that cling like limpets on rocks to the sides of an increasingly modernising London. These are the abodes that are often left to low income families to rent, often sharing houses and flats at three or four people a time and those are the lucky ones. If I went through all the people on my facebook friends list who lived in London right now, I am certain the number of them who actually owned their own home and had a mortgage would number less than twenty! That is tragic. How have we as a society allowed this to happen? Where owning ones own home is now a luxury that only the top 20 percent earners can afford. This is not just a failure of us as a society but a failure of humanity and in Diamonds in the Sky, that failure is put to the test by a force from another world. A force which gives us a choice.
It was a sad irony as I watched that tower burning live on television that I realised the core theme of my book was playing out before my eyes on the screen. Grenfell will in time I am sure come to mean more than just a terrible disaster. It will stand as a tragic monument to the evil of greed in this country and everything that comes with it.
Spoiler Warning – Do not read this part if you don’t want a plot point given away.
The initial idea for DITS came from a thought I had on this subject one day - ‘What if something happened on the earth that made all the housing anyone could ever need, completely free of all bills and costs, available to anyone who wanted it? That is part of the concept behind the story for the book series. I wanted to explore that issue in a narrative that would be engaging and exciting for the reader. If such a thing did happen you can imagine the consequences and divides it would cause in our society. The ownership of land and property accounts for the majority of much the wealth in the world but what if the majority of the population of earth suddenly had no need for it? Who would stand to lose the most from this scenario? The answer is of course the affluent and the wealthy, two words which are normally synonymous with those who hold positions of power in the world. When those in power are threatened what do they? They will seek to destroy the origins of that threat. This formula forms the basis for the background of the key conflict in my book. (It's certainly not the only one)
So how important is a theme to a book?
I never set out to write a story with this theme deliberately embedded, it pretty much happened by accident or maybe it was something that unconsciously I wanted to tackle all along? Although I am writer of some years of experience (Screenplays and Plays predominantly) I am still a complete baby when it comes to writing the fictional narrative in the novel form, what I am not new to doing however is writing a gripping story. However any advice you may wish to take on board from my written ramblings should be preceded with the caveat that what works for me or what is important for me, as a writer, may not hold equal sway with you. So keep that firmly in mind and take everything with a very delicate pinch of salt.
As I begin writing the second book, where having established the characters, the overall theme of the book begins to play a more dominant role, I have concluded the following. The theme for the story is only as important as it needs to be in the telling of the story. This will largely be dictated by two things I feel –
What kind of genre are you writing in? If you’re book is a horror for example, it could be that the theme may not play a dominant role in the story and your priority will be to grip the reader with as many scares and surprises as possible. That said it could be equally important for you, through your book about say - the ghost of a child killed by an adult, who attempts to protect other children from their killer – that it's theme would be to explore the failure of society to protect our most innocent. Something which is very topical at the moment. A western novel set in the 1800’s may tackle the themes of American repression and aggression towards foreign cultures, paralleling historical events of the present, while a crime drama could make a statement about Gun Control (For or against it!) On the other hand the book may just be a crime drama with a well written story and the theme less important. We all accept murder is bad, so that of itself is not a theme on its own, but a well written crime drama, doesn’t always need to have a strong theme, but in my experience as a reader, the best ones (Prime Suspect 1973 for example, written by the prolific Lynda La Plante) always have one.
Is the theme directly relevant to your plot? That last example I gave (Prime Suspect 1973) has one of its core themes - the deplorable attitudes by the male work force, towards the female employee in a male dominated workplace in the 1970s – at the heart of its story. In fact it is how the main character, Tennison, deals with these issues, that form the frame work of many of her dilemmas in both this and the other novels. It's the conflicts and barriers she faces as a woman that makes her struggle as gripping as the crimes she investigates. The methods she employs in using a system which is broken to work for her is part of the beauty of the story. The murder plot which is the main focus of the story in this example is almost secondary to the theme I have mentioned above.
So in my case, yes, the plight of the growing gap between rich and poor, the failure of capitalism and the lack of affordable decent accommodation for the lower classes in the world’s cities is a theme which while not dominant in the first novel of the series will very much come to the fore as the main plot comes into focus over the course of the story. It is very much deliberate on my part because it is core to the story arc of the series.
So my advice to you on theme is decide where it fits within your story or where your story fits within the theme you wish to explore and if it is important then be clear about that from the beginning before you start writing. One thing you should not do is over think it.
Can your story have more than one Theme?
Of course it can and large expansive novels, especially series often have several. Fantasy epics such as George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones has many themes: The conflicting demands of duty and love plays a very central part and in fact is at very the core of the starting point of the whole story. The war starts in Game of Thrones because Brandon Stark witnesses Cersei and Jamie Lannister making love in the old tower in Winterfell. Jamie pushes Brandon off the tower, hoping to make it look like an accident which in turn sets the ball rolling on a number of other events which leads to war. Jamie’s love for Cersei often puts him at great risk and makes completing his duties more challenging than they otherwise might be. Ned Stark doesn’t wish to leave Winterfell and his family but is duty bound by his oath to the King to do so, so he chooses his duty over love and family. The Song of Ice and Fire novels in fact explore so many themes that I could list them forever here. The phrase 'All that glitters is certainly not gold' would be apt way to describe another theme in the book. The reality of riches is often a poisoned chalice in Game of Thrones. Sansa Stark looks forward to a change in the south where the weather is warmer and expects a life filled with banquets and romantic episodes with the man she is expected to marry. The reality is the man is a twisted sadist and the city is riven with conflicts, deceit and sexual perversity hiding in every dark corner. She then spends much of the rest of her time being used as a political pawn by one party and then another. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science Fiction epic, the Mars Trilogy has a different theme in each book and other constant themes throughout such as the failure of the model of capitalism. His first book, which focuses on the mission of the first one hundred people to colonise Mars spends great detail examining the social conflicts and ideas that arise when building a social infrastructure on a new world. The right that humanity (Or Martians over Terran's) have to determine the fate of a new world is a theme which arises time and again throughout the series. While the theme of the damage to the natural environment by man is another. Conflicting political ideals over what makes the best new society for humanity is the core of the second book. To some degree his characters are almost secondary to his themes because they're so constantly in the foreground, rather than in Game of Thrones where the reverse is the case. The themes in Game of Thrones arise organically as part of the characters respective stories and George RR Martin may well have deliberately wished to explore all, some or none of the themes that naturally arose over the course of his books. However I am certain if you asked Kim Stanley Robinson if the themes his trilogy explores were deliberate he would respond that they were an integral part of both the story and the characters and of the world he wished to create.
I am certain Diamonds in the Sky will have a great many themes beyond the one I have mentioned here once the full arcs of all the characters have presented themselves to me, at the time of writing I know what happens to some of them but the fates of many are as yet, undetermined, so it will be interesting to see where the keyboard leads me.
This comes back to the importance of the story. Always tell the story first. Because one thing I have learnt as a scriptwriter and I am certain it applies to the manuscript of a novel is that story is always king. That however is a topic for another day!